Unleashing future Indian cities

While union government’s increased focus on Indian cities is welcome, these cities will succeed only if state governments empower them to take ownership and start competing to become better

shailesh-pathak

Shailesh Pathak | December 10, 2015




India’s urban citizens need many improvements to make their cities better and more livable. A complete list would include livelihood opportunities, law and order ensuring safety, good urban mobility and transport, health and education, robust IT connectivity, good affordable housing with 24X7 water and electricity, solid waste management, and good governance from the city government and other agencies. Almost all these are going to happen at the city and state government levels. The Indian constitution puts local government in List II state list in the seventh schedule. The union government can only encourage and motivate state and local governments.

As an urban and infrastructure practitioner, I am enthused by the focus from the union government on getting things done in Indian cities. There seems to be a coordinated strategy towards achieving improvements in all the above areas. Apart from MiSiDiCi (Make in India, Skill India, Digital India and Clean India), there are three more missions from the ministry of urban development launched in June 2015 – Smart Cities, AMRUT and Housing for All. Other schemes include Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), 24X7 electricity, solar energy and UDAY programme.

Though Make in India, Skill India, and Digital India are implemented by different ministries, yet all the missions are equally important. Make in India will produce livelihood opportunities for India’s youth, who will increase their employability through Skill India. Digital India will turbocharge both private and public sector.

Making Indian cities more livable
The Smart Cities Mission is much talked about, partly due to its Smart Cities Challenge ‘competition’ that required wide public consultation, and also because technology companies assumed this would be a tech-led mission. Thankfully, it has turned out to be a citizen-led mission that will see 98 cities submitting their smart city proposals by December 15, 2015, of which 20 cities will be selected for the first year. We would, hopefully, know the names of the successful smart cities by Republic Day, and projects would take off in 2016. The remaining cities would learn and participate more vigorously in the smart cities challenge next year and beyond.

The other, more important mission is AMRUT – Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation – for 500 cities. AMRUT will focus on five areas, but initially, it will ensure water supply in every home by first providing a tap with assured water supply and second, a sewerage connection and seepage management. It would also focus on storm water drainage to reduce flooding and urban mobility – pedestrian, non-motorised transport, and public transport facilities. It would also make provision for open spaces, including greenery and parks. However, until full service delivery of a tap and sewerage connection in every home, the remaining elements would not be taken up.

Housing is part of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, which sets 2022 as the deadline for housing for all. This could easily be the largest employment generation enabler over the next six years.  The Housing for All Mission has four components: slum rehabilitation using land as a resource, credit-linked subsidy through financial agencies, affordable housing in partnership, and subsidy for individual house construction. Implementation will be the key, of course, in partnership with state governments and the private sector.  An integral part of the mission is a technology submission promoting eight types of low-cost technology, all of which my colleagues and I have evaluated. Some have been already implemented as part of Bengaluru smart city, and will be incorporated in the social housing business going forward.

HRIDAY on the other hand focuses on 12 traditional cities – Ajmer, Amaravati, Amritsar, Badami, Dwarka, Gaya, Kanchipuram, Mathura, Puri, Varanasi, Velankanni and Warangal. It aims to fund core heritage infrastructure projects that are expected to revitalise urban infrastructure for areas around heritage assets in these cities. These initiatives shall include development of water supply, sanitation, drainage, waste management, construction of roads, footpaths, street lights, tourist conveniences, electric wiring, landscaping and other citizen services.

Swachh Bharat Mission is working towards India’s gift on the 150th birthday celebrations for Mahatma Gandhi in 2019 – only four years away. Solid waste management, a specific urban problem, will be streamlined. All households will have toilets, in addition to community toilets and public toilets. At least in urban areas, we could well have 100 percent coverage of all households with toilets. Creating awareness and communications has already led to ignited minds.

The political tangle
A key component of smart cities is the management of urban mobility and public transport, which is showing improvement. The private car-borne minority is getting challenged by the majority who would like to walk or cycle or use public or shared transport to commute to work. Census 2011 clearly shows that one in five Indians walk to work, and only three percent take a car. Metros, buses and multi-modal transport options are coming up.

Innovations such as Raahgiri and Car-free Day started from Gurgaon are spreading to other cities. The theme of “Move people, not vehicles” of the National Urban Transport Policy is now being implemented on the ground. But the struggle is going to be long drawn-out, since this is more about who has priority on the road, a political process and contest best resolved locally.

Indeed, lack of such local resolution for civic issues is the primary challenge and obstacle in a coordinated strategy in making cities better and more livable. Cities world over, except India, are run by empowered local governments. Toronto city councillor Michael Thompson was incredulous when I told him that Indian ward councilors and mayors were not significant, and citizens petition their local MLAs and MPs for urban amenities. He decisively said that no Toronto resident would go to a federal MP or a MPP (MLA or State legislator) for city issues.

Councilor Thompson was clear: “You have to get the political infrastructure right in order to get the city infrastructure right.” His reasoning was simple. As a councilor, you have to know your ward/constituency voters very well, a luxury MLAs and MPs do not enjoy. This is true of Indian cities as well, where city councilors have smaller voting populations than much larger MLA and MP constituencies. This may also be the reason why instead of a direct connection with their electorates that city councilors do have, MLAs and MPs appoint agents and intermediaries for their much larger constituencies. 

The seven-step strategy

  • Each city should have a directly elected mayor with a full five-year term. He/she would be the leader of the city. Sensible chief ministers of state governments would encourage such strong mayors as their biggest strengths.
  • In the union government and state governments, there should be a limit of 15 percent councilors who would be in executive governance structures of the city government. Mayors should also have the flexibility to induct experts and professionals into his/her team.
  • The provisions of the 74th amendment – Part IXA of the constitution, as also schedule 12, should be implemented, and devolution be made to happen from state governments to city governments, or the inelegantly termed ‘urban local bodies’.
  • Appointed officials in city governments should not be appointed by state capitals, but by the city mayor, from a pool of applicants who could be sourced from various government streams. Such appointed officials should be given a fixed term of at least three to four years.
  • Each million-plus city should have a relationship with National Institute of Urban Affairs in Delhi. More importantly, each such city government should have a direct tie-up and close symbiotic relationship with an academic institution or university within their city or nearby.
  • All city government elected and appointed officials must be sensitised and undergo capacity building in reforms management.
  • Similar to the ease of business rankings for Indian states, we need to start doing similar rankings for the top 53 cities in India, to encourage virtuous competition among our cities.


In this context, “All politics is local” bears repetition. In Indian cities, local politics has been shortchanged, and all power resides with MLAs and MPs, who rule cities through appointed officials such as municipal commissioners, district magistrates, and superintendents of police.

Seven steps to better cities
Given the ground realities and the concerns about who should be driving the change it is important to identify the specific steps to overcome such obstacles. It is also crucial to create a horizontal reporting structure instead of the current vertical format of reporting to the state capital. Following are some suggestions for all 53 million-plus cities in India – those with population exceeding 10 lakh.

First, each city should have a directly elected mayor, by whatever name known. (S)he as mayor with a full five-year term would be the leader of the city. The Smart City Mission is a beginning towards this. Sensible chief ministers of state governments would encourage such strong mayors as their biggest strengths. Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh already have directly elected mayors. MLAs and MPs may be less enthusiastic about this, but citizens would be delighted.

Second, the number of councilors in executive functions needs to be reasonable. As in the union government and state governments, there should be a limit of 15 percent councilors who would be in executive governance structures of the city government. Mayors should also have the flexibility to induct experts and professionals into his/her team. Citizen responsiveness would be high with directly elected mayors in any case. 

Third, the provisions of the 74th amendment – Part IXA of the constitution, as also schedule 12, should be implemented, and devolution be made to happen from state governments to city governments, or the inelegantly termed ‘urban local bodies’. All funds, functions and functionaries should be transferred as per the constitution.

Fourth, appointed officials in city governments should not be appointed by state capitals, but by the city mayor, from a pool of applicants who could be sourced from various government streams. Such appointed officials should be given a fixed term of at least three to four years. This will encourage elected and appointed officials to work together.

Fifthly, each million-plus city should have a relationship with National Institute of Urban Affairs in Delhi. More importantly, each such city government should have a direct tie-up and close symbiotic relationship with an academic institution or university within their city or nearby. Such academic institutions could work with the city government in capacity building, developing institutional memory and identifying best practices that can be upscaled. This is a surprising shortcoming in the smart city guideline. While the ministry of urban development has identified nine centres of excellence, this is clearly inadequate to produce large number of urban practitioners required over the next two decades.

Sixth, all city government elected and appointed officials must be sensitised and undergo capacity building in reforms management. While an ambitious plan has been outlined by the MoUD, this needs to be dramatically upscaled by each state government and each academic institution for its affiliated city government.

Lastly, similar to the ease of business rankings for Indian states, we need to start doing similar rankings for the top 53 cities in India, to encourage virtuous competition among our cities. 2016 is a good year to start this.

Minister of urban development and housing and urban poverty alleviation Venkaiah Naidu consistently articulates the need for ‘smart’ urban leaders, who will take ownership and resolve to champion their cities. In the structure of cooperative and competitive federalism evolving among the union and state governments, competition incentivises better governance. Similarly, there is implied competition among major Indian cities to become a preferred destination to live, work and play.

Urban India is going to double in population over the next two decades. While the government’s increased focus on Indian cities is welcome, these cities will succeed only if state governments enable and empower their cities to take ownership and start competing to become better.

 

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